Higher ed cuts hurt farming too
This story was originally published in and is reprinted with permission from The Bakersfield Californian.
By Robert Price
By now you've probably read all there is to read about how public higher education will be hurt by California's abysmal finances. You've read about the posturing and dysfunction of a Legislature that's supposed to value and support its remarkable network of state colleges and universities. You've read about the burden that spiraling tuition costs will impose on middle-class families neither wealthy enough to painlessly finance the undertaking, nor poor enough to get significant aid.
Well, wait -- there's more. The Legislature's complete and utter failure to act on behalf of higher education is likely to smack everybody else right between the eyes, too -- especially if they live in the southern San Joaquin Valley. And doubly so if they farm.
The University of California system isn't just educating a generation of future policy-makers, scientists, entrepreneurs and educators, it's fighting to keep California competitive today.
For the Central Valley, "the area within the UC budget that is being most drastically affected (by state budget shortfalls) is ... research related to agriculture," Neal K. Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, told me Friday in Bakersfield.
Though many jobs in agriculture are low-paying, many others pay quite well, and that earned wealth is a significant economic driver. That wealth, derived from global competitiveness, rides on the back of research -- research carried out by institutions like UC Davis. From harvesting automation to advances in processing, research has helped the Central Valley stay ahead of the global competitive curve, albeit barely. Take the dairy industry, for example.
"So how do you take a low-cost product like milk and get added value out of it, particularly from the waste stream?" Van Alfen said. "We're working on things like whey, a byproduct of cheese making. It used to be dumped and now it's becoming, through research, something of value. We're finding that there are some special chemicals in whey that have even greater value than just as a raw protein."
And who benefits from public-sector research that finds value in agricultural byproducts? Not big business, which is more likely to be able to support its own research. It's small business. Mom and pop. The enterprises that struggle so hard to stay above break-even. The people that the most partisan, intransigent elements of the Legislature talk about protecting. Ironic, no?
America's chief economic rivals are running at full speed in terms of agricultural and other industrial research, China most notably. California, meanwhile, has cut public-sector research, and may cut deeper still.
By forcing the UC system, as well as California State University and California community colleges, to raise tuition, restrict enrollment and ratchet back programs, the state is also making things difficult for the young men and women who'll be moving into vital roles in the economy -- jobs in research, technology, management.
"Economists will tell you that the type of economy that develops in the U.S. is one where you're either looking for low-level jobs or you're looking for highly skilled jobs," said UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who was also in Bakersfield Friday. "In between is a place where technology has taken over and there are not too many of the jobs that we had in the '60s, '70s, '80s. ... That's where the state of California is in a really dangerous spot, because we're putting in place the kind of workforce that cannot attract the kind of economy, and the businesses, that will provide us with quality of life."
That's what's at stake, the UC Davis educators agree: keeping California competitive by nurturing those in the economic trenches today and those eager to steer the high-tech plows of tomorrow. Once upon a time, our leaders understood all that.